The 1916 stunt that made Nathan’s Famous a Coney Island hot dog icon

No summer visit to Coney Island is complete without a stop at Nathan’s Famous, the iconic boardwalk restaurant that offers everything from burgers to frog legs (really) but made its name back in 1916 selling delicious, cheap hot dogs.

Nathan’s Famous in the 1910s or 1920s

Yet the five cent frankfurters Polish immigrant Nathan Handwerker began hawking from a stand on the then-unfinished boardwalk wouldn’t have caught on—if not for a clever stunt he came up with to convince the crowds on Surf Avenue to give his hot dogs a try.

Nathan’s in 1936, with a little competition by Nedick’s on the corner

The story starts in the 1910s, when the reigning hot dog king at Coney Island was Charles Feltman, who ran a successful restaurant and beer garden and supposedly invented the hot dog (or hot dog bun, more precisely).

Handwerker worked for Feltman as a roll cutter and then a hot dog seller before deciding to go into business for himself with a friend, according to Nathan’s Famous: An Unauthorized View of America’s Favorite Frankfurter Company, co-authored by William Handwerker, Nathan’s grandson.

Nathan’s expanded its menu by 1939

Feltman’s and other hot dog establishments sold their franks for 10 cents each. Handwerker priced his at the same rate, but he realized he wasn’t selling enough to make a profit. So he cut the price to a nickel.

Selling hot dogs for the cost of a subway ride sounds like a smart business move. But there was a lot of concern at the time that a hot dog so cheap couldn’t be made out of beef or pork but something a lot less appetizing, like horses, explained Larry McShane in a New York Daily News article marking Nathan’s centennial in 2016.

A Nathan’s customer in 1939

Anticipating this concern on the part of the public, Handwerker came up with a genius idea: He’d hire men to wear white doctor coats and sit around his stand enjoying the cheap franks.

Handwerker “borrowed some doctor’s coats and stethoscopes from Coney Island Hospital personnel and put them on some men and had them eat franks in front of his stand,” wrote William Handwerker. “Potential customers said, ‘If it’s good enough for doctors, it has to be good enough for us.'”

Juicy hot dogs…and an amazing neon boardwalk sign!

Sales increased, and Handwerker began attracting a devoted following. His little frankfurter stand (which didn’t even have a name for its first two years, according to William Handwerker) was on its way to becoming a Coney Island classic.

[Top photo: via New York Daily News; second photo: MCNY 43.131.5.13; third photo: MCNY 43.131.5.91; fourth photo: NYPL]

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11 Responses to “The 1916 stunt that made Nathan’s Famous a Coney Island hot dog icon”

  1. RONALD L RICE Says:

    Great story!
    Who knew!?
    Doctors sell more Dogs!
    R

  2. Shayne Davidson Says:

    I now understand why Nathan’s goes by the owner’s first name only!

  3. Greg Says:

    “a hot dog so cheap couldn’t be made out of beef or pork but something a lot less appetizing, like horses,”

    Indeed, the very name of the hot dog reflects this suspicion. A suspicion that, in the Germany of the 19th century, was sometimes justified. Dog consumption was not unheard of then and there.

  4. Greg Says:

    Another peculiar thing about hot dogs – in Frankfurt they are called Vienna sausages and in Vienna they are called Frankfurt sausages. Hence the”Frankfurter” and “Weiner” that we use interchangably with hot dog. I started to try to unwind how that happened but gave up.

  5. VirginiaLB Says:

    My great-grandfather’s brother was a New York meat inspector in the late 19th and early 20th centuries. His comment, still quoted in our family, was “If you knew what was in a hot dog, you’d never eat another one.” Nonetheless, the occasional hot dog is hard to resist.

    • ephemeralnewyork Says:

      After researching this story, I’ve been craving a hot dog…and that just reminded me why I rarely eat them!

      • VirginiaLB Says:

        The ‘doctors’ eating those hot dogs was quite a gimmick. I wonder if Nathan came up with the idea partly because of Upton Sinclair’s 1906 book ‘The Jungle’ about the meatpacking industry. Its description of meat processing revolted the public and led to the Pure Food and Drug Act soon after. Your post reminds me of all those ‘doctors’ in TV ads not so long ago.

  6. Jack Says:

    Brilliant

  7. countrypaul Says:

    Marketing is everything. (But yes, they taste good, too – and no, I don’t want to know the contents!)

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